“Do Right Woman …Do Right” Man”
“You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”
“Chain of Fools”
The pop music—the Top One Hundreds—I’d grown up on didn’t use terms like “Respect” or register the idea that for a woman to “do right,” her man needs to do right, too.
Winner of 18 Grammys, singer at both Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968 and Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Aretha spanned generations and movements and gave them both her riotous, ringing voice.
A friend called her “A soundtrack for the sixties,” her most important contribution. She also brought Gospel into the mainstream, based in the Baptist church where her father was the pastor. The dark underside of her story—she was pregnant at twelve for the first time, for the second time, at fourteen—lent rage and depth to her voice. She would never be a victim, in her own eyes or in ours.
Hearing of her going into Hospice two days ago, my group of five women friends, all from different places, stages and times, recalled what hearing her singing had meant to them. One of us was in tears. In addition to everything else we hold in common—our work, our community, our friends—we hold the powerful introduction into our liberation as women that Aretha gave us so freely, so abundantly, from the bottom of her heart and soul.
My birth as a liberated woman happened when I was driving, alone, from Kentucky to the Adirondacks to spend time at Blue Mountain, a blessed retreat for artists and writers who are activists.
I’d never driven so far alone before and this was long before GPSes, so with my big map spread out on the seat next to me, I was venturing into unknown territory and my first sighting of the Great Lakes. Later I would get lost, taking an ill-advised late afternoon walk in the fierce mountains of the Adirondack Park, and both ventures were inspired and supported by the songs Aretha was singing on the radio.
She sang for me as she sang for all of us, including six white, prosperous, middle-aged women who remember the moment when her voice broke some of our chains.
[For more on this time in my life, please see my post, Something Changes in Me… Music and Revolution. And for more on Aretha, including lots of great photos, please see The New York Times’ obituary.]